Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Dinner with President Ahmadinejad of Iran--Beeman

Dinner with President Ahmadinejad of Iran
William O. Beeman 
I was at an intimate dinner with Iranian President Ahmadinejad (and 57 others!) on Wednesday, September 22 at the Warwick Hotel in New York. We had an excellent Persian meal without the President being present (perhaps to meet the objection some had about "breaking bread" with him). Dinner was followed by a question and answer session in an adjacent room. The guests were largely public policy specialists, ex-ambassadors and a smattering of academics, a few of whom, including me, who spoke Persian because they were Iranian-American or because they had bothered to learn the language.
President Ahmandinejad is a fiery and controversial speaker in public, but in private he is a polished and polite conversationalist, and a highly skillful rhetorician. He manages to combine an erudite vocabulary with an informal, highly conversational verbal style. He answers questions even in a forum like this as if he was having an intimate chat with his interlocutors. This doesn't mean that he is any less controversial. He has pat answers for nearly every predictable question. Asked about executions in Iran, he points to the incipient execution of a woman in Virginia (which took place late last week after the dinner). When asked about nuclear weapons he says, "Announcing that you want nuclear weapons is to announce that you are a murderer. What other purpose is there for having nuclear weapons than to murder people." Asked about the judiciary, he points out that it isn't under his control and that in the U.S. and other nations, presidents often disagree with the decisions of the independent courts. 
Ultimately however, I was disappointed with the event. President Ahmadinejad extended the time originally allocated for questions and answers by 45 minutes. His patience with the assembled body was notable. However, the extra time was wasted. With few exceptions the vast bulk of the questions were really variations of each other--and all about Iran's nuclear program. This was disappointing because President Ahmadinejad had been answering questions from the press almost exclusively about this issue for two days. A simple Google search would have yielded up virtually every single answer he gave to those assembled at dinner.

The golden opportunity to engage President Ahmadinejad on a wider variety of issues--human rights, Afghanistan, Iraq, the environment, drug trafficking, trade policy, relations with India and China, and on and on was totally wasted in the obsession with the nuclear issue. At times I got the feeling that the assembled academics, ambassadors and policy specialists were trying to play "gotcha journalism" as if asking the same question over and over again in slightly different language was going to trap the President in to making some kind of verbal mistake. His line on the nuclear issue is by now finely honed, and he is quite practiced under fire. Any hope that he would break rank on this topic should have been dispelled in the first ten minutes. One of my companions snuck out early, saying "My God, this repetition is like water torture." I don't want to be mean spirited, but this was a sad showing from some of the finest minds in the country who somehow couldn't break away from this one-note theme.

But the food was superb.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Beeman discusses relationship between US, Iran (Grinnell College--Scarlet & Black)

September 17th, 2010 | By | Section: News

On Thursday Sept. 16, William Beeman visited Grinnell College and gave a lecture entitled “Iran Is Not What You Think It Is.” Beeman is a specialist in Middle East Studies, Japanese Studies, Central Asian Studies, Linguistics and Performance Studies. He is currently a professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota while continuing a reputable musical career as an opera singer. Beeman has published, among other works, “The Great Satan vs. The Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other,” “Language, Status, and Power in Iran” and “The Third Line: The Opera Performer as Interpreter.”
He proclaims views on Iran that are contrary to commonly held misconceptions­—although he is a strong critic against Iran’s human rights record. In my interview with him, he shared with me a history of Iranian-American relations.
Beeman Convo
William Beeman shaking hands - Radka Slamova
Q: What is public perception of Iran in America? Why do you disagree with it?
A: I think people see Iran as, it’s been characterized by a lot of people as a medieval backward country that’s ruled by repressive religious forces, and the picture also paints Iran as this very dark, gloomy place. And this is, you know, I didn’t say this explicitly in the talk, but the first thing you want to dispel is this notion. Because most Iranians live with economic and political difficulty, but for the most part the Iranians live a very happy life.
The idea, too, that the place is ruled by mullahs is wrong. During the time when Ayatollah Khomeini was established as the spiritual leader, yes indeed, they put a lot of clerics in positions of authority. But over the years they’ve proven to be not very good managers. … They’ve gradually been replaced by people who really knew what they were doing. So even in government, maybe 25 percent are still bona fide clerics, but the balance of the government is all now secular individuals, or people who stopped pretending that they’re clerics.
And getting to be a high-ranked cleric is also, I should say, not necessarily a guarantee that you’re going to be conservative. And what you find is that you go to the theological schools in the city of Qom. It’s a big capital with theological training, and some of those clerics, first of all they are just so smart, they have the equivalent of a Ph.D. in philosophy, and of course they know Arabic and they are skilled in argumentation. And many of them are very, very liberal, and very radical, and they also feel that they have the right to come out and just flatly criticize the government, which they do on a regular basis. So being a mullah, so to speak, is not a guarantee that you’re going to be conservative.
So both of those stereotypes that mullahs run the government is not correct, and the stereotype that mullahs are very conservative is not correct.
Q: What is the root of strained relations between Iran and America?
A: Well there are two sides to it. There are Iran’s problems with the United States. And these go way back. In Iranian thinking, the United States is an extension of Great Britain, and in the 19th century, Great Britain and Russia more or less divided up the country into spheres of influence, and the British had enormous influence over Iranian politics and the Iranian government. … In 1952, the Prime Minister then, Muhammad Musaddiq nationalized the Iranian oil company. The British were furious about the nationalization of oil, and the United States was afraid that Musaddiq was creating an unstable situation, so the U.S. staged a coup and brought the Shah back into power and deposed of Musaddiq. This was the first time the United States had acted really directly to deal with Iranian internal affairs. Then gradually over time the United States developed commercial relations with the Shah…The U.S. sold arms to Iran, lots of them, extensively for the defense of the country, but the Shah more or less used the increased military expenditure to develop a very strong defense force that also repressed the population of the country. So gradually there was opposition to the Shah because of his repressive tendencies, [and this was] also directed towards the United States for their support of the Shah…Then when the revolution finally came in ’78-’79, the United States made the terrible mistake of admitting the Shah to the United States for medical treatment. This was a big surprise to the Iranians, they didn’t know he was sick. And when they’d heard he had cancer and he was going to the U.S., they thought “uh oh, here we go again. They deposed the government in 1952 and restored the Shah, and now they’re bringing the Shah to the United States to make plans to depose the government again.” So they wanted to send their own doctors to New York to examine him to see if he really had cancer because they didn’t believe it. And then the U.S. refused. And that was the thing that touched off the takeover of the American embassy. The American embassy was taken over then, and many people in Washington view this as the most awful insult that has ever been leveled against the Unites States.
So the United States started to have trouble, serious trouble, at the time of the hostage crisis. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations at that time with Iran and they’ve never restored them. Gradually, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions upon Iran, it’s not clear why …but these sanctions were renewed under Bill Clinton, and then finally under George W. Bush we had a whole neoconservative agenda that had been cooked up during the 1990s to affect regime change in all of the countries in the Middle East and get rid of the Iranian government.
And the U.S. tries to find ways to make up an excuse for attacking Iran that would be plausible to the American public. So once again they renewed the idea that Iran was supporting terrorists worldwide. And then they claimed that Iran was attacking the U.S. through proxies in Iraq. And finally they hit on this nuclear idea, as a justification for attacking Iran. So you can see that there’s a lot of bad blood between the two nations. And untangling 30 years of hostility is really, really tough. And a lot of it is actually quite emotional, not even substantive.
In point of fact, Iran hasn’t done anything to the United States, not anything, they haven’t done anything. I mean they kicked out the Shah, but it was their Shah. The charge that they were attacking the U.S. military in Iraq turned out to be completely unsubstantiated. They haven’t attacked Israel—they haven’t done anything to us. And yet the United States is still claiming that they are the most dangerous people in the world, the most dangerous nation on Earth. And Iran can point to several things that the United States has done to Iran.
Also what’s happened in the last ten years is that US-Iranian relations, they weren’t very good, but they were separate from U.S.-Israeli relations. The last decade, they’ve become united. And there’s a kind of formula—if you’re soft on Iran or friendly towards Iran, then you’re an enemy to Israel. It’s kind of amazing because we really should be pursuing separate tracks in my way of thinking. This affects American political life, because nobody, no politician can come out and say not even anything positive, or they can’t even say we should rethink our dealings with Iran—because then they get attacked by people who say they’re not supporting Israel, because in order to be a friend of Israel they have to be an implacable enemy of Iran.
Anyway, I know that sounds long, but it’s kind of a short litany of these grievances between the two.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Reality check: Iran is not a nuclear threat--Christian Science Monitor

The Christian Science Monitor -

Reality check: Iran is not a nuclear threat

Forget the neoconservative hype. The facts show Iran is not and has not been a nuclear threat to either the United States or Israel.
By Scott Horton
posted September 17, 2010 at 12:42 pm EDT
Comment by William O. Beeman:  Many of us have been trying to get this message across to the American public since 2003. The claim that Iran was making nuclear weapons was an excuse promulgated by the neoconservatives of the Bush administration to make attacking Iran acceptable to the U.S. body politic. Sadly, though there is ABSOLUTELY NO PROOF that an Iranian nuclear weapons program exists, it has now been presented so often that most Americans believe it to be true. This is a sad commentary both on our political life and on the American media. Please read and forward this piece widely.

Los Angeles —
Politicians, lobbyists, and propagandists have spent nearly two decades pushing the lie that Iran poses a nuclear weapons threat to the United States and Israel. After a brief respite in the intensity of the wolf cries over the past two years, the neoconservative movement has decided to relaunch the “Must Bomb Iran” brand.
The fact that Iran is not and has not been a nuclear threat to either nation is rendered irrelevant by a narrative of universal “concern” about its nuclear program.

US media distortions

In mid-August, for example, after The New York Times quite uncharacteristically ran a piece diminishing the supposed danger of Iranian nukes, the story was misrepresented in newspapers and on TV stations across the country in the most frightening terms. As MSNBC’s news reader put it that afternoon: “Intelligence sources say Iran is only one year away from a nuclear bomb!”
On August 13, on Fox News, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton implicitly urged Israel to attack Iran’s new light-water reactor at Bushehr before it began “functioning,” the implication being that the reactor represented some sort of dire threat. But the facts are not on Mr. Bolton’s side. The Bushehr reactor is not useful for producing weapons-grade plutonium, and the Russians have a deal to keep all the waste themselves.
On September 6, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a new paper on the implementation of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement which reported that the agency has “continued to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran to any military or other special purpose.”
Yet despite the IAEA report and clear assertions to the contrary, news articles that followed were dishonest to the extreme, interpreting this clean bill of health as just another wisp of smoke indicating nuclear fire in a horrifying near-future.
A Washington Post article published the very same day led the way with the aggressive and misleading headline “UN Report: Iran stockpiling nuclear materials,” “shorthanding” the facts right out of the narrative. The facts are that Iran’s terrifying nuclear “stockpile” is a small amount of uranium enriched to industrial grade levels for use in its domestic energy and medical isotope programs, all of it “safeguarded” by the IAEA.

More sensational claims

If the smokescreen wasn’t thick enough, late last week a group of Marxist holy warrior exiles called the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, working with the very same neoconservatives who sponsored Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress – which manufactured so much of the propaganda that convinced the American people to support the invasion of that country – accused the Iranian government of building a secret nuclear enrichment facility buried deep in tunnels near Qazvin.
Headlines once again blared in total negligence and without verification that here indeed was, an official told Fox News, proof that Iran has a “hidden, secret nuclear weapons program.’” TV news anchors on every channel furiously mopped sweat from their brows, hearts-a-tremor. When will the forces of good rise to stop this evil?!
Yet even US officials quickly admitted that they’ve known about these tunnels for years. “[T]here’s no reason at this point to think it’s nuclear,” one US official said – a quote that appeared in Fox’s article, but only after five paragraphs of breathless allegations. All day long, top-of-the-hour news updates on TV and radio let the false impression stand.
IAEA inspectors have had open access to the gas conversion facility at Isfahan, the enrichment facility at Natanz, and the new lightwater reactor at Bushehr, as well as the secondary enrichment facility under construction at Qom.

An ignored clean bill of health

The September 6 IAEA report confirming for the zillionth time the non-diversion of nuclear material should be the last word on the subject until the next time they say the same thing: Iran, a long-time signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is not in violation of its Safeguards Agreement.
So what’s all the hubbub about Iran’s “nuclear defiance” and “danger”?
The IAEA’s latest report does note that Iran has “not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.” Indeed, the agency’s frequent mentions of Iran’s “lack of full cooperation” is a big reason why US media reports portray Iran in ominous terms.
But here, too, US media frequently miss the point. Never mind that 118 nations around the world have signed a statement criticizing the IAEA’s “peaceful activities” conclusion as a departure from standard verification language. More broadly, Iran’s “lack of full cooperation” by itself is an outcome of Western bullying and propaganda.

Real reason for lack of cooperation

The US and the UN, acting upon no legitimate authority whatsoever, have demanded that Iran submit to an Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement, which would ban any further enrichment on Iranian soil, as well as demanded they submit to an endless regime of IAEA inspections and questioning, based mostly on the “alleged studies” documents, which several sources have said are forgeries posing as a pilfered laptop of a dead Iranian nuclear scientist.
These separate, UN Security Council-mandated investigations have even demanded blueprints for Shahab 3 missiles – a subject far removed from hexafluoride gas or any legitimate IAEA function. In 2003, Iran voluntarily agreed to the extra burden of the unratified Additional Protocol during “good faith negotiations” with the so-called “E-3,” Britain, France, and Germany, acting on behalf of the US. When those negotiations broke down, Iran withdrew in 2006.
With these details left out of the discussion, the impression is left that Iran is refusing to abide by international law, when in fact, it is completely within its NPT obligations.

An outrageous standard

Meanwhile, Washington continues to apply to Iran the outrageous standard it used in the run-up to the Iraq war: an unfriendly nation must “prove” it doesn’t have dangerous weapons or a secret program to make them – or potentially face military action.
“Proving a negative” is, to say the least, a difficult obligation to meet: You say you haven’t read Webster’s Dictionary cover to cover? Prove it!
The bottom line is that Iran is still within its unalienable rights to peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT and the Safeguards Agreement – a point even Tehran’s fiercest critics (grudgingly) acknowledge. The only issues it is defying are the illegitimate sanctions and demands of the US and UN, which themselves defy logic and sense.

Journalists’ ethical obligation

It is far past time for the members of the American media to get their act together and begin asking serious follow-up questions of the politicians, “experts,” and lobbyists they interview on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program.
Many of these same journalists still have the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis on their hands from the months they spent continuously and uncritically parroting the lies, half-truths, and distortions of agenda-driven Iraqi dissidents and their neocon champions who pushed us into the Iraq war.
Perhaps this is their shot at redemption.
Scott Horton is host of Antiwar Radio on the Liberty Radio Network and assistant editor at